Trevante Rhodes on His Role in Moonlight

UT alum discusses the acclaimed coming-of-age drama


In the midst of tumultuous times concerning race, racism, and social progress, Barry Jenkins' remarkably vivid masterpiece Moonlight has arrived at an incredibly opportune time and place, as a crowning moment for people of color. Concurrently, elevation of black awareness in the mainstream continues, including pivotal material transcending (for example) Tyler Perry's garish and dreadful stereotype enforcement – as if racists and their pretend progressive cousins needed assistance.

We've had the pleasure of seeing first-rate, critical triumphs, set in POC points of view, including Donald Glover's universally acclaimed Atlanta, and Netflix hits – Marvel's Luke Cage, The Get Down, Narcos, and Aziz Ansari's Master of None. HBO's Issa Rae vehicle Insecure is making waves. These represent merely a short list of shows. As exceptional as the film is, Moonlight's existence shoves the conversation forward, as a robust intersectional extension of the diverse black experience.

However, that doesn't mean it's not also apparently a sign of the black apocalypse. Doubling down on the racism and racial fetishism of gay blacks by non-black members of the queer community, there's a host of cisgender African-Americans already charging the film with black castration. "Something else condoning the effeminization of the black man. No different than buck-breaking during slavery," mentions one commenter on Moonlight's Facebook page – not an isolated opinion on social media. It's as if homosexuality, apparently a white invention placed upon the darker peoples, did not exist pre-slavery. Moreover, it was hidden out of view after. James Baldwin, Meshell Ndegeocello, and Luther Vandross merely existed in vacuums.

Taking it to another level – sharing some "inside baseball" within the African-American community – gays can be choir directors of black churches, but their experiences aren't to be discussed. "I find it really unique that the black community, who has been oppressed and is still oppressed, can find a way to oppress themselves, and ourselves, within it," says Trevante Rhodes, the UT-Austin alum who plays the lead character Chiron as an adult, contemplating and hiding his sexuality in layers of masks.

Without minimizing black gayness in the film, shown nuanced and without stereotype, Moonlight is first and foremost about various contexts of love, discovery, and identity as men. Written by Jenkins and based on Tarell Alvin McCraney's play, In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, there actually isn't a plot, or particular motivations, in the minimalist scripting. The viewer is literally driven in and dropped on the streets of the Liberty City area of Miami, where the film tells the story of Chiron, in three distinct periods.

Trevante Rhodes

The first is Chiron as an oft-bullied child (Alex R. Hibbert) nicknamed Little. In a role that should garner Oscar consideration, Naomie Harris plays his mother, Paula, a burgeoning crackhead who emotionally abuses him as her do-nothing boyfriend stands by. He's taken, at least emotionally, by a drug dealer named Juan (played by rising star Mahershala Ali) who becomes something of a father figure for young Chiron. Not insignificantly, he's befriended by young Kevin (Jaden Piner).

The second section represents a teenage chaos identifiable for most viewers, as Chiron (now played by Ashton Sanders) endures a worsened hell on Earth, managing his emotional and socioeconomic insecurity while trying to stay sane. His friendship with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) turns sexual, which makes the events toward the end of the act even more shocking in nature. In the last act, we follow Chiron (now played by Rhodes) who now believes he's reinvented himself, hardened behind various masks he's presumably learned through years of others' errors and disappointments. An unexpected phone call from Kevin (André Holland) changes Chiron's trajectory. Their scenes together are some of the most affecting in the film.

Playing what amounts to be the summation of others' life choices in one body, the emerging Rhodes was charged with locating where his character is in present day. "Chiron was someone who was obviously insecure, who doesn't love himself. Because his mother doesn't love him, doesn't accept him, he doesn't accept himself," explains the Westworld actor. "So for me, it was about developing this kind of skin, and walking around as if I had a secret I had to hide from everyone. I developed a self-hatred, that made me hate everyone who I came into contact with – even little kids who were walking with their families, and smiling."

His instant connection with Harris – who, as mother Paula, is the principal connector of all three phases of Chiron – takes the film up a notch. "I cried every take," he explains about his scenes with Harris. "The first take she was surprised, so she just looks at me and she reaches under the table and grabs my knee; no words are said. It was this moment of cohesion with this person that I just met 10 minutes prior to shooting the scene. But it was love, like a love that I've known this person my entire life."

The tremendous acting aside, Jenkins' direction cannot be understated. The filmmaker, a native of Liberty City himself, breathes life into the city, ballooning his hometown into an ecosystem of uncertainties. Offering no tidy guarantees, the only absolutes are the vulnerabilities of black lives. In a larger context, Jenkins invigorates the ongoing mainstream reinvention of blackness, by black artists given space to explore their dimensions.

In Mark Anthony Neal's New Black Man, the author notes a passage by curator Thelma Golden, writing for an exhibition, "Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Comtemporary American Art." She wrote, "One of the greatest inventions of the 20th century is the African-American male – invented because black masculinity represents an amalgam of fears and projections in the American psyche which rarely conveys or contains the trope of truth about the black males' existence."

Moonlight invokes truth about the state of black lives and blackness, in a way not seen since Charles Burnett's classic Killer of Sheep, which only received a limited release 30 years after completion. Unlike Burnett's stunted success, but also because of it, Moonlight's truth will live to see the spotlight it deserves.

Moonlight opens Fri., Nov. 4. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.

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Moonlight, Trevante Rhodes, Barry Jenkins

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